On January 8, a meeting is scheduled to take place between the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) and Portland's Chinese community. The topic of discussion: Old Town/Chinatown's controversial new dragon sculptures ("Chasing the Dragon," News, Dec 14). But the meeting will take place 8.6 miles away from Chinatown on SE 82nd—raising questions about the success of Chinatown's ongoing renewal by the Portland Development Commission (PDC).
RACC's director of community affairs, Jeff Hawthorne, says the decision to hold the meeting near SE 82nd, at the Legin Restaurant, is largely based on its capacity. But he admits the dragons—which appear collared, or strangled—could be serving as a lightning rod for Chinese discontent over the PDC's efforts to redevelop Old Town/Chinatown.
"We are convening the meeting specifically to talk about the public artwork," he says. "But we're aware that there are larger issues at play, and hopefully, the PDC will be at the meeting to listen to those issues."
In June 2005, long-term Chinatown business owner Neil Chan moved his Hung Far Low restaurant from the corner of NW 4th to SE 82nd—solidifying his resentment of continued upheaval in the district by transplanting one of its most iconic symbols elsewhere. To many, the move signaled the death of old Chinatown, and the birth of a new Chinatown in SE Portland. And Chan blames much of the situation on the PDC's redevelopment work in the historic area.
"There was constant construction, rents were going up, businesses were doing badly, and there was no parking," says Chan. "We're a lot better off over here, and I'm hoping this is the new Chinatown."
This spring's arrival of the huge Fubonn Asian supermarket—just blocks south of Hung Far Low's new home on 82nd—may have bolstered Chan's hopes, by attracting dozens of new Chinese and Asian businesses to the strip.
"Of course, Old Town is the historic Chinatown, but many Chinese people think it is not a good place for business," says Rosaline Hui, co-owner of Portland's Chinese Times newspaper, which has its office on SE 79th and Powell. "Most new Chinese immigrants live and work in this area, and when they want to eat, they'll do that here, too. In many ways that makes this the new Chinatown."
But while Asian businesses and residents are flocking away from the historic district, the city—through the PDC—is still trying to make nods to the area's legacy, resulting in public "art," like the controversial dragon sculptures, that has only served to offend many of the Chinese residents living in Old Town/Chinatown. And some see the faux-Chinese decorations to be a "Disneyfication" of the area—a Chinatown only in name.
Still, the PDC has continued to show some effort to reinvigorate interest in Old Town's Chinese history and businesses. This September, the agency paid out for the Under the Autumn Moon Festival to be once again staged in Old Town/Chinatown—two years ago, the festival moved to 82nd. The festival was billed to celebrate the "completion of the NW 3rd and 4th streetscape," and attracted 35,000 visitors, but organizers—including Hui from the Chinese Times—are unsure about where to hold it next year.
"We'd like to have something more concentrated on Portland's Chinese community," says Hui. "If it's not possible to have that in Old Town, then maybe we'll move it back to 82nd."
The shifting of the Chinese community from Old Town to SE 82nd could be seen as a natural result of history and the economy—for much of Portland's existence, Chinatown wasn't a place to celebrate the Chinese community, but a place to contain it in something of a ghetto. With such official "red-lining" now a relic of the past, and with cheaper land and more space available farther away from the city's core, perhaps it was inevitable that the migration would take place.
The transition puts PDC's tactics under a microscope. The agency was formed decades ago to handle real estate deals in a hurry, disconnected from the city's elected leaders. In recent years, however, city council has moved the PDC into more of a community development role. This has put the agency in the business of creating affordable housing and business and homeownership opportunities for minorities—and that, critics say, is something the agency is not well equipped to do, as evidenced by the Chinatown results.
Two weeks ago, on December 14, City Commissioner Erik Sten led a charge to change state law, giving the city control over PDC's budget and tactics. This will tie the agency's work—including its community development duties—to elected officials, who are accountable to the communities that are undergoing rapid transformation. Sten's efforts may come too late for one of Portland's two Chinatowns.